One-fifth of U.S. households purchased guns during the pandemic, a national arming that exposed more than 15 million Americans to firearms in the home for the first time, academic studies show.
Americans purchased nearly 60 million guns between 2020 and 2022, according to an analysis by The Trace, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that tracks gun violence. Yearly gun sales are running at roughly twice the level of 15 or 20 years ago.
All the new weapons may be fueling a historic surge in gun deaths, which reached record highs during the same period.
“It’s a totally different type of gun ownership now,” said John Roman, a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Group at NORC, a research organization based at the University of Chicago.
“It’s not a rifle stored away somewhere that you take out twice a year to go hunting. It’s a handgun, probably a semiautomatic handgun, that you keep in your bedside table or in your glove compartment, or that you maybe carry around with you.”
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a run on gun shops, part of a larger national spasm of panic-buying that gripped the country at a moment when many Americans thought society might collapse.
“There was fear, and real concern, about what happens to the country during a global pandemic,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president of law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control nonprofit.
The National Rifle Association fanned that fear, Suplina said, by tweeting out a video of a woman holding a rifle and pushing firearms as a pandemic safety measure.
“You might be stockpiling up on food right now to get through this current crisis,” the woman says. “But if you aren’t preparing to defend your property when everything goes wrong, you’re really just stockpiling for somebody else.”
Between March 2020 and March 2022, 18 percent of households bought guns, according to a NORC survey.
Pandemic gun sales raised the share of Americans living in armed homes to 46 percent, up from 32 percent in 2010.
“Five percent of Americans said they bought a gun for the first time during the pandemic, which is a huge number,” Roman said. “Those buyers were younger, they were more likely to be renters, they were more likely to be women, they were more likely to be people of color.”
A scholarly study found that 7.5 million Americans became new gun owners between 2019 and 2021. Those purchases exposed 17 million Americans to household firearms for the first time, a figure that includes 5 million children.
The study found that many Americans who already owned guns, nearly 20 million, bought more.
“Most people say, ‘I bought the gun to protect myself and my family against home invasion,’” said Matthew Miller, professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University and one of the report’s authors. “But that doesn’t explain why most of the guns that were bought during this time period were bought by people who already owned guns.”
The pandemic accelerated a rise in gun ownership that began around 2005, the year Congress passed a law that largely shielded gun manufacturers from liability when their products are used in crimes.
That law set off a new era of emboldened advertising by gun makers, who marketed firearms as an essential tool for defending the American home.
“This is to protect yourself against your fellow humans,” Roman said, “with the implication being that your fellow humans are getting increasingly dangerous. Which is ironic, of course,” because violent crime stood at a low ebb after the turn of the millennium.
Gun sales rose further with the 2008 election of former President Obama, partly from fears “that the government was going to shut down gun purchases,” said Eric Fleegler, an associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies gun violence.
FBI background checks for firearm sales more than doubled in a decade, from 9 million in 2005 to 23 million in 2015. Five years later, in pandemic-scarred 2020, the bureau conducted nearly 40 million background checks.
Gun sales have retreated since then. But the FBI logged 8 million background checks through March, presaging a yearend total of at least 30 million for 2023.
Background checks are an imprecise measure of gun sales, because they include sales of multiple weapons and concealed-carry permits for guns already owned, among other complexities.
Using background checks and other data, The Trace estimates that gun sales almost tripled between 2005 and 2020, from 7.8 million to 21.8 million. Firearm sales eased to 18.9 million in 2021 and 16.6 million in 2022. All three figures are larger than the gun-sale total for any other year in the new millennium.
“Clearly, there has been a stark increase in gun purchases, and I think a lot of these folks are new,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy and programs at Brady, the gun-control nonprofit.
“And I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that all gun owners make sure they understand the responsibility they have to safely store these weapons, and to understand the risk that is associated with having the firearm in the home in the first place.”
With the nation awash in firearms, gun deaths are rising anew. Research by Fleegler and colleagues found that firearm fatality rates increased by nearly half between 2004 and 2021.
More Americans died from gun violence in 2020 and 2021 than in any prior year on record. Gun-related homicides and suicides totaled 48,830 in 2021. Shootings of children nearly doubled during the pandemic.
“There are no two years in recorded history that I’m familiar with, going back to the 1980s, that you see such a dramatic increase” in such a short span, Fleegler said.
The nation also endured a record number of mass shootings in 2021: 690 incidents in which four or more people were shot. The Gun Violence Archive tallied 646 mass shootings in 2022.
The link between rising gun ownership and rising gun violence is hard to prove. Yet, “gun ownership rates track very closely to gun fatalities,” Fleegler said. “If you want to know where people are dying by guns, look where the guns are.”
Guns are most common in the South and least prevalent in the Northeast, a 2021 Pew analysis found. Firearms sit in around half of rural homes, two-fifths of suburban homes and 30 percent of urban dwellings, and in 40 percent of all American households.
Researchers envision a return to an era when firearms sat in half of American homes. Five decades of NORC surveys show a peak of gun ownership in 1977, when exactly 50 percent of households held guns.
Nearly one-third of Americans hunted in 1977. Hunting declined over the decades, and gun ownership reached a low ebb around 2010.
Estimates vary on how many guns are circulating today in the United States, but most sources suggest guns outnumber Americans.
“There’s enthusiasts, survivalists, collectors,” Heyne said. “I think somewhere around 3 percent of the U.S. population possesses more than half of the guns in the country.”